1522, England. Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham is executed for treason by King Henry VIII. He had apparently been searching near Glastonbury for the Holy Grail and Excalibur in order to use them to prove his worth to usurp Henry. Benjamin Daunbey and that old reprobate Roger Shallot, narrator of these tales, are dispatched to Templecombe Manor, along with the King’s official Agentes de Rebus, in order to both find these relics and expose any other traitors there. But it seems that Templars who once lived in the Manor are not as extinct as once thought and prophecies of death start coming true – one Agente burns to death in his locked bedroom, another is killed with a crossbow inside a locked church. Can Shallot get to the bottom of events – or even simply stay alive?
This is the third of the Journals of Roger Shallot, a rogue in the service of Daunbey, nephew of Cardinal Wolsey, and, unlike many of the other books by Paul Doherty, it is told in the first person – and rather colourfully at that. The first two books in the series, The White Rose Murders and The Poisoned Chalice, are two of my favourites of Doherty’s canon. So, is this three out of three?
Sort of. But it’s not as good as the first two.
That is, of course, a relative statement. Shallot’s narration is a joy to read, although it does seem less imaginative than the earlier books. Rather than tales of his apparent relationships with Elizabeth I and Mary Tudor, it does seem mostly to be references to things that he said that William Shakespeare later borrowed. I suppose it’s possible that an editor asked the writer to tone it down a bit, but there’s plenty of other lewdness to go around, so that’s probably not the case.
And yes, those Templars are back, a favourite, it seems, in historical mysteries. This is the latest appearance (by a couple of centuries) in books that I’ve read, but the author’s note indicates that the survival of the group is an historical fact, so fair enough.
The locked rooms are fair enough, although neither are particularly clever – the fire is well put together, but I think it’s fair to say that the death in the chapel is one of those technical ones that to be done properly, needs more explanation than would make a good story. Doherty chooses the story over a detailed plan of the church, and I think it’s the right choice.
So far, so good, so why am I saying it’s not as good as the first two? One simple reason – it probably features the most obvious murderer ever. By the nature of the book being a mystery, one can eliminate a large portion of the cast as the killer, and after that, it would have genuinely surprised me if it had been anyone other than the person it is revealed to be. That’s the only minus point in a book that kept me glued to it from beginning to end, but it is unfortunately a pretty big minus point.
What is surprising is that the story of the relics – the Grail and Excalibur – do seem to fit into a story set centuries after those of King Arthur, without relying on the unreliability of Shallot as a narrator – indeed, this story seems to be the most grounded of all of his tales so far.
So, a slight hiccup in the saga of Roger Shallot. Here’s hoping that the next is not so obvious.